Weihnachtsbier. Juleøl. Bière de Noël. Winter Warmer. No matter how you spell it, nothing says “Christmas beer” like lush sweet malt, bold spices, and lots of alcohol. And no beer has ever shouted it louder than Braunschweiger mumme (pronounced MOO-muh). The biggest, baddest beer of the late Renaissance, mumme was the Bigfoot, the Ten-FIDY, the Bourbon County Brand Stout of its age, “as strong as six horses, coach and all,” according to one 18th -century drinker.
But the most remarkable feature of mumme was its viscosity. It was typically brewed from an entire quarter (nine bushels) of malt per 63-gallon hogshead, often with an additional bushel of beans and ten “new-laid eggs, not cracked or broken.” After boiling off a third of the mash, the wort reached gravities as insanely high as 1250. That’s 2½ times denser than the strongest Burton Ale more than a century later. “Mumme,” observed one 19th century wag, “had the colour and consistency of tar—a thing to be eaten with a knife and fork.”
Closely guarded, Mumme’s greatest secret was its spice bill. One recipe, preserved at the Technical Library of Freising, Germany, lists 14 ingredients, including spruce bark, birch buds, juniper berries, bay leaves, cardamom, marjoram, thyme, and St. Benedict’s thistle (Carduus benedictus). Sounds a lot like a recipe for a medieval gruit, the spice medley that preceded hops.
What mattered most, though, was mumme’s longevity: No other beer showed greater staying power. After aging in oak for two years, it could be transported to the ends of the known earth. Well before British merchants shipped stout to Russian or pale ale to India, ships from the Hanseatic League carried mumme to the East Indies, to the West Indies, and even Jerusalem. Over 300 hundred years later, renowned writer and avid drinker H.L. Menken dubbed mumme the “first export beer . . . that ushered in a golden age of beer.” Much of what we know about mumme’s heyday, though, can be traced to the first comprehensive book about brewing, published in 1573.
Italian painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, astronomer, cartographer, geologist, anatomist, botanist, historian, engineer, and inventor Leonardo da Vinci may have been the original Renaissance Man. But the Germans had their guy too.
Heinrich Knaust was a poet laureate, a dramatist, a composer, a linguist, a political columnist, and an authority on 16th-century secular and ecclesiastical law. But for all his scholarly brilliance, he is best remembered for his passion for beer. Four hundred years before Michael Jackson’s The World Guide to Beer, Knaust described 133 different beer styles he had personally tasted. Just as Jackson split the beer world into top-fermenting ales and bottom-fermenting lagers, Knaust divided Renaissance beers into white wheat beers and red barley beers. He dubbed Hamburger beer the “king of wheat beers” and beer from Danzig (now part of Poland) the “king of barley beers,” but saved his greatest praise for, “Braunschweiger Mumme . . . the most celebrated [beer] of all, named for its discoverer, Christian Mumme (1492).”
Mumme’s popularity encouraged many imitators. To reinforce the drink’s provenance with the Lower Saxony town of Braunschweig, or Brunswick, credit for its invention was ascribed to a local brewer named Christian Mumme. A book written in 1736 by Franz Ernst Brückmann further burnished Mumme’s legend and cemented Braunschweig’s reputation as the home of mumme. But Braunschweig historian and chief librarian Heinrich Mack put the Mumme myth to rest when he discovered that mumme had been brewed in Braunschweig at least 67 years before Christian Mumme “discovered” it. And when Mack could find no trace of a Christian Mumme ever having lived or brewed in Braunschweig, another colorful brewing legend bit the dust.
Like most beers of the era, Braunschweiger mumme came in two versions: Stadtmumme was a mild version brewed for the local citizenry; Schiffmumme, or “ship’s mumme,” was brewed extra strong and extra sweet for export. The export version became so popular in London that it was often referred to as English mumme. “Mum-houses” were all the rage during the English Restoration period. In 1664, the noted diarist Samuel Pepys describes a colleague, Mr. Norbert, getting hammered on the potent brew. But by the 18th century, thick, sweet beers like mumme had fallen out of favor, and only a non-alcoholic, malt-extract version, prescribed for medicinal purposes and as an energy drink, survived into the early 20th century.
The new millennium, however, has witnessed a new appreciation of this historic drink. Since 2006, an annual festival celebrating mumme takes place the first weekend in November in Braunschweig. Local restaurants serve dishes made from mumme, and the town brewery produces a moderately alcoholic (5.2%) version of the old stadtmumme more suited to modern tastes.